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Family Traditions – Creating Family Heirlooms That Tell A Powerful Story

Let’s talk about creating family heirlooms. I firmly believe in the importance of family traditions. Creating recurring events, setting specific expectations, designing unique vacation stays or rites of passage; these are all ways we mold our memories into our own unique family stories. Family traditions provide each one of us with a comforting sense of belonging.

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As these experiences become memories and the stories are passed lovingly down, they transform into treasures existing as tangible connections weaving us all together in the most beautiful ways. Even long after we are gone. How remarkable.

Outside of shared experiences and annual traditions, we have something else that contributes to our sense of family- family heirlooms. Until recently, I hadn’t thought much about creating family heirlooms.

We had a rough year last year and this year is certainly off to a tough start as well. Through the lens of the pandemic, I see clearly the fragility of each and every life, which has highlighted the intrinsic value of every family member and their contributions to our family as a whole. It takes all of us together to be the most truly us.

And so I have learned to treasure the heirlooms I have been entrusted with in a whole new way. For example, my Grammy Newcomb was a teacher, and back in the seventies, her students brought her these metal engraved Christmas tree ornaments that meant the world to her. I remember them hanging from her tree. She knew without looking which student had gifted her each one.

As we decorate the tree every year I make sure to tell every one of her legacy as a beloved school teacher as I lift each ornament from the box. I feel especially close to her as I polish them and hang them towards the very top of the tree. And I encourage family and friends to appreciate the personal messages scratched across the brass surfaces of those ornaments when they visit. I am a homeschool teacher now and I believe that she would be proud of that. Those ornaments represent an ever-present link between us.

I also have collected recipes from family members over the years and that collection includes my Grammy Fox’s famous chicken wings, my Grammy Newcomb’s dilled carrots, Trenton’s Nonnies German Potatoes, my Gram Coopers New England Clam Chowder, my Mom’s Macaroni Salad, and no-bake cookies, and on and on and on. Each of these recipes is a genuine treasure to me. One day, I will pass them on to T.

I have other things too: photos, letters, jewelry, a collection of snowglobes… Each with a story. Each representing a connection to who I am and from where I come. As I think about these things it makes me wonder what part of the story I want to leave. What sentence or statement could I weave firmly into our family tapestry? What impact could my contribution to the whole contain? Have you ever asked yourself that question?

Family Heirloom ideas.

Let’s look a little closer at some of the most popular family heirloom ideas, and let’s consider what we want to contribute to the story of us and our families, our history, our unique and beautiful circles…

Art – I love to paint and I give my art to family members often. But it doesn’t have to be handmade. It could be a painting that has long been a part of the family. You could have your home sketched or painted. A family portrait can be easily placed on a canvas. Any piece of art that has a connection with your family can become a treasured heirloom.

Photos and Photo Albums – This one is obvious it seems. The trouble is that these days our photos all too often live exclusively on screens. Taking the time to print and gather photos in an album may be one of the most precious heirlooms you can offer.

Collections of Letters or Diaries – In a post I wrote recently about ways to get creative with your family, I suggested taking some time to sit down and have everyone draw names and then take fifteen minutes to write letters to one another. If you were to make this a family tradition, say every Thanksgiving, imagine how precious an heirloom you could create by copying and combining those letters.

Recipes – As I mentioned above, recipes are often the most treasured of heirlooms. I was born and raised in Maine and the dishes from my childhood still bring me great happiness. Now I am down here in Tennessee and a bowl of chicken and dumplings fills me with happiness. But you see, those recipes tell part of our stories. Our roots in the little villages of Maine and our family tree branching all the way down south. These flavors are treasures.

One year my Mom made each of us girls a jar of dilled carrots and attached to it was a card with my Grammy Newcombs recipe. Everyone agreed without a doubt that this was their favorite gift that Christmas.

Bibles – My mother had our family bible laid out open on a table in her living room and we all recognized that it was more precious than gold. Inside the cover is the record of births of family members we never even came close to on our own timeline. But they are our lifeline, our family. Starting a family bible is a beautiful way to create a treasured family heirloom.

Stories – Every family is loaded with stories. Why not take some time to sit down and share your funniest family stories. Your most exciting adventures. Even the most frightening encounters you have ever had. It’s easier than ever before to have a book printed and what an amazing book it could be – the story of your family.

Seeds or Plants – My Gram Cooper gave me a Christmas Cactus named Edith. I love Edith. I get ridiculously excited when she blesses me with blooms. Whether it be clippings from a rose bush at your family home, seeds from your Grampy’s favorite tomato crop, a peace lily gifted at a funeral, or any other form of life that can be shared from one generation to the next, then it is part of your family and could make a lovely heirloom.

Hope Chests – My Grampy had a woodshop and he liked to make us girls Hope Chests. Then my mother and grandmothers would begin making quilts and filling it with pots and pans and sheets and dishes. Hope Chests are an heirloom all by themselves but add in the right hand made items and it can end up filled with heirlooms.

Quilts – I love those quilts made out of baby clothes. Recently as I was going through T’s clothes I discovered he had outgrown a ton of shirts and had put them in the donation box. I couldn’t bring myself to part with many of them. Like his soccer jerseys, his Habitat for Humanity t-shirts, his Adventure Camp shirts, and the likes. So, I set them aside and when the virus has passed, I am going to go see my Gram and have her show me how to make them into a quilt. This can be done with not just clothing, but curtains from your house growing up, you can even have pictures printed on fabric and create an heirloom quilt that way.

Jewelry – When Mr. Wonderful asked me to marry him it was with his mother’s engagement ring. It meant so much to me and it still does. One day T’s bride will be wearing it too. Wedding bands, watches, bracelets, necklaces, these all make amazing family heirlooms.

Wedding Dresses – I know the times and styles change, but there is something so personal and so special about a wedding dress. Next year when I finally get a chance to open my photography studio, I want to offer newborn packages where I pose the baby with its mother’s wedding gown. Wedding gowns can be worn over and over across the generations, or they can be framed for presentation, or they can be displayed as backdrops in family photos. However they are utilized they contribute to stories of families in the biggest ways.

Furniture – My grandfather’s roll-top desk. I have been hoping and praying since I was a tiny girl that one day that desk would be mine. I’m determined to write a best seller from that space. It is a family heirloom and it is the one I want more than any other. But there are plenty of pieces of furniture that contribute to the story of a family. A bassinet, a grandfather clock, a dresser, a vanity…

Christmas Tree Ornaments or Nativity Sets – My Mom does this amazing thing where every year she gives her grandchildren a Christmas ornament that in some ways directly references an event that occurred that year. This tradition has turned our Christmas tree into a trip down memory lane. I love these ornaments. She and my grandmother have ornaments from the depression and even further back making their trees an even longer trip down memory lane. Ornaments and nativity sets make beautiful family heirlooms.

I know I haven’t included every possible heirloom in the list here but perhaps it has got you thinking in the same way it has me. How can we create these treasures for our families? What ties that bind can we contribute to our story?

I’m ready to get started.

Please feel welcome to share your thoughts in the comments section below. I would love to hear about the family heirlooms that matter to you and what their story is!

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